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ACT Reading Blog Post

Should I Skim the Questions Before I Read the Passage?

act prep reading skim the questions first illustration with roostersI get the “should I start with the questions?” question a lot. It’s a popular approach taught by many test prep helpers. The approach sounded like it had merit, so…

I sat down this week to do something I can’t remember ever trying before–skimming the questions before reading the passage and answering the questions on an ACT Reading test.

I thought skimming the questions would help me with the questions that were detail specific. I already knew there would be “big picture” questions dealing with theme and the purpose of paragraphs (because there are on every ACT Reading passage).

All items shown below are from the 2016-2017 Preparing-for-the-ACT Guide. They are the property of ACT Inc., not 36 University.



Here are the 10 questions I skimmed. I have highlighted the portions I initially underlined so you can see my thought processes and to help you read more quickly.

act reading question 1

act reading question 2

act reading question 3

act reading question 4

act reading question 5

act reading question 6

act reading question 7

act reading question 8

act reading question 9

act reading question 10

Here’s what happened:

  • My initial skim seemed helpful. I knew I had to focus on photos by Bombay’s great photographers (Q1), several sets of lines (Q3, Q6, Q7, Q9), and how the narrator viewed his parents’ work (Q8), among others.
  • But I had a hard time remembering the questions while trying to absorb the passage, and I knew absorbing the passage was essential because big picture items (Q1, Q7, Q8) were coming.
  • I still had to reread the questions anyway. The questions were detailed enough so that I had to reread them to make sure there weren’t any nuances I missed in my initial skim.
  • I ran out of time!!! It took me about 50 seconds to skim the questions. On average, you get 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage. I went over that mark by about 15 seconds. That may not seem like much, but if I missed the pace by that much on all four passages, I’m a minute over the allowed time.


My Recommendation

I suggest reading the passage first. Keep a pace that allows you to remember key details while still soaking in the subtleties of the passage. Use the questions to guide you to parts of the passage that you may need to reexamine. They often specify paragraph or line placement to make your job even easier.

If you still think skimming the questions first is for you, I suggest you develop a quick notation system that helps you remember the questions and work through them more quickly when you get back to them. Practice enough so that you know which types of questions you want to try to keep in mind as you read the passage. Ultimately, check your approach (using a practice test) versus the more traditional passage-then-questions approach to see which one gives you the best score.


Dr. Kendal Shipley, 36U President